Thursday, 3 November 2011

The commodification of higher education has arrived

Data last week revealed that applications to university have, thus far, decreased this year following the introduction of £9000 fees.  Though any conclusion drawn at this stage should consider that the application cycle is far from closing, the figures are none the less damning.

The figures reveal that applications are down 9% overall.  But for medicine, dentistry and top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, only 0.8%.  Two things could be at work to explain this uneven drop; the deadline for medicine, dentistry and Oxbridge passed on 15th  A similar drop will eventually be revealed in applications to other courses, it’s simply a case that people are holding back in submitting applications. October and a very similar number of people chose to apply this year.  The variance is, perhaps, negligible.

This makes little sense for two reasons; for all course and especially the highly competitive medicine and dentistry, there is a backlog of those that did not succeed in getting on their chosen course in the last few years.  That culminates in a backlog of applicants, plus the latest round of new applicants, in a position to apply for courses this year.  That the figures have dropped at all, when the backlog has aggregated to its largest for many years, would suggest that demand has dropped more than the figures suggest. 

Second, in the extremely competitive environment as suggested above, early applications become increasingly important.  for the top universities, those that apply early have a greater chance of being offered a place.  Perhaps many are toying with the idea of committing to such a vast expense explains the delay, however they are actually devaluing that commitment by leaving it later to apply and probably not getting a place at their preferred, and perhaps, better choice of university.

My own view is that figures will have dropped significantly this year and that medicine and dentistry have sucked in a greater proportion of those applying overall.  Therefore the drop for all other courses will be significantly more than that for medicine and dentistry – as figures already suggest - as applicants migrate toward the more lucrative degrees.  

The figures so far bear this out; behind the 9% overall drop the so called ‘soft subjects’, such as communication studies and PR, have seen their applications fall by up to 40%.  Others, such as Education and Business studies have seen falls of around 30%.  Maths and engineering have seen an overall fall around 3%.  The figures are not the same at all universities, with some such as those in the Russell Group faring better.

This is the first evidence of the commodification of higher education; those degrees that deliver more financial benefit are becoming more popular.  Thos with a less tangible, or more specifically, financial value are being avoided.  To many this may seem obvious; aren’t all our decisions about maximising our financial gain?  The simple answer is no, or at the very least, it didn’t used to be; the sudden drop in applications to the subjects perceived as less lucrative makes that self evident.

It certainly is a tragic subversion of the traditional role of education as learning for the sake of learning.  It has been a long time coming, a fait accompli once the concept of charging for higher education was introduced, once the customer/service provider relationship was established.  As I have noted before, the Coalition is following Labours initial germ of a policy through to its logical conclusion.

It may well be courses such as English Literature and fine art, vital to our cultural and artistic development, an unquantifiable but valuable element of our society, that suffers most.  Art, literature and cultural expression all have a value in our society, one that is not simply expressed by the highest bid made at auction.  By eroding the role of our education institutions as existing for the sake of knowledge, we are eroding our cultural growth and understanding one step at a time.  Universities are one of the few places that have existed outside of the need for profit, where young people have been able to develop and knowledge created.  Tearing them down, is not the way forward.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A tale of two referenda

The call last week for a referendum on the UKs membership of the European Union and yesterdays announced referendum by the Greek Prime Minister on the proposed bailout and austerity package, draws an interesting parallel.  Referenda are both rare and divisive, especially in the UK.  The reason for the former is that they are not a particular good way of making decisions as they have questionable democratic value.  The reason for the latter is that they usually present a binary offer – in/out, yes/no – as demonstrated by the Electoral Reform referendum last May.  This is hardly conducive of a balanced and moderate discussion in which all possible options are examined.  As an example the recent calls from Euro-sceptics called for a yes/no on EU membership, it was only later after much opposition that a third option in a referendum was considered.

The purpose of a representative democracy is to appoint experts to make decisions on the people’s behalf.  During its passage through the Commons a prospective law is examined philosophically in debates in the chamber, practically as evidence is gathered and considered by committees and technically during its various readings, including a line by line examination.  The vast majority of people have neither the time nor expertise to properly weigh up matters as complex as EU membership nor scrutinise a Parliamentary Bill; besides they are often lost in the fog of misinformation such as that propagated by the media and groups such as UKIP and the BNP.  That’s why we ask politicians to make complex decisions on our behalf.

Similarly referenda can descend into ridiculous arguments such as that over AV; even its supporters weren’t fans of AV but they chose to support the compromise they were offered.  There was no third, fourth or fifth alternative.  This creates two issues; polarised arguments that get lost in emotional propaganda designed to confuse voters.  As the rhetoric is ratcheted up, each side becomes entrenched in polarised positions that present the argument in black and white when it should be shades of grey.  

Secondly, they are fundamentally undemocratic.  Those setting the referenda have decided the policy options prior to the vote taking place; they’re value is somewhat illusory or at best, their application extremely limited.  Those voting aren’t deciding an issue, their deciding which of the politicians decisions to endorse.  For example, the AV referendum was not based on sound analysis of evidence, but a political compromise.  To be truly democratic, it should have offered a range of different systems.  

That point aside, the conclusion to be drawn is that direct democracy in the form of referenda is often not a good approach and is thought with problems as attested to by the call for a vote on EU membership.  However the situation in Greece offers a very different situation and challenges this perception.  At this stage a referendum seems not only politically the right thing to do, but morally also; economically it is likely to prove a disaster.

Politically, the Government is offering the people the opportunity to reject or accept the actions of their government.  The current situation in which the Government is essentially working in spite of its population, can’t continue.  The population are clearly rejecting its current actions; the offer of a vote will allow them to make their view clear.  Morally, its imperative; what happens in the coming months will shape Greece for generations to come, if it hasn’t already.  The austerity measures and bailout package or the alternative – default and withdrawal from the Euro – will shape the fundamental nature of Greece for the next few decades.  In such a situation, a referendum seems appropriate.

Economically it is likely to cause further problems as markets react badly in the short-term and if a default were to occur, we are likely to see a major Lehman-style credit event.  But this is the whole recession writ large; the subtext of the last three years has been the tension between democracy and economics.  Our reliance on the financial sector and its lack of accountability, the socialisation of the bank bailout, ongoing debates over 50p tax rates are all symptoms of this relationship that has faltered now that crisis has arrived.

Can we draw a distinction between Euro-sceptic wishful thinking – that we can maintain our current trading terms and level of influence while withdrawing from every other element of European union – and the crisis besetting Greece?  If we can, it’s by drawing a distinction between the technical debate of one and the philosophical nature of the other.  This might be a false dichotomy, the Euro-sceptics certainly see our membership of the EU as a philosophical issue and the bailout package is certainly technical in most senses of the word.
Perhaps instead it comes down to what is at stake.  The Greeks are voting on the future shape of their society, the social contract, the economic settlement.  The experience of post-Soviet Russia and Argentina demonstrate quite how desperate and fundamentally different things may become.  Withdrawal from the EU would be just another chapter in the UKs steady post-war decline, our economy suffering significantly and our global influence diminishing dramatically.  Whatever your view, it’s hard to begrudge Greeks an opportunity to influence the austerity that’s tearing their society apart.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The social implications of economic crisis

Where economic crisis prevails, social upheaval is soon to follow.  The Arab Spring may offer a glimpse of what is to come in Europe.
Whatever you may wish to call it (The credit crunch, Great Recession, World Financial Crisis etc) , the financial crisis at the end of the last decade has been roundly described as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It’s a sobering comparison in a social, as well as economic sense; the rise of fascism tore Europe apart in hitherto unimagined ways.
The lessons of protectionism that exacerbated the Great Depression have already heeded; the dangers of unfettered capitalism less so.  But the Depression sits within the larger chapter of modern history that is the inter-war period; glibly put the First World War begat the Great Depression which in turn begat the Second World War.    
All of these events are interrelated and are difficult to separate from one another.  The devastation of WWI destroyed economies and toppled governments and Empires across Europe.  The economies of Europe attempted to return to their state of affairs in 1914 but this simply wasn’t possible, eventually the world economy collapsed.  Out of this emerged political and social revolutions as fascism swept across Europe.
The policy response of world leaders in 1942-7 reveals much about the lessons learned from the Great Depression just over a decade earlier.  Following another catastrophic World War, world leaders sought to head off the threat of social revolution that was fermenting in the economic ruins of post-war Europe, much as it had done throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  This resulted in the Post-War consensus; capitalist economies regulated by the state, nationalised industry, full-employment and a robust welfare state. 
Both social democrats on the left and economic liberals on the right agreed; the world economy would have to be fair and benefit those people who participated in it if destructive revolutions were to be avoided.  The lessons of the Great Depression taught them that an unemployed and impoverished population would not tolerate a socio-economic system that had left with them with nothing, but others with everything.  This threat of revolution focussed their action and clearly illustrated that there could be no return to business as usual.
A return to ‘business as usual’ has been the sole aim of policy responses to the financial crisis thus far.  Yet as the crisis looks set to take a turn for the worse and sovereign debt threatens to destroy the Eurozone, this approach is no longer tenable.  Should the worst occur the repercussions are difficult to predict, but they would certainly result in an unprecedented global financial crisis greater than that already experienced.  Even a mild crisis would have serious repercussions for the societies in the Eurozone periphery.
In the last year the crisis has developed a social dimension.  Although there is no Soviet Union alternative model for radicals to rally around, there is widespread disenchantment at the status quo.  Italy, Spain and Greece have all witnessed calls for changes to the economy and society.  These will only increase should this crisis engulf the whole of Europe yet further.
The Arab Spring has demonstrated what can happen when economic collapse forces a population to question the assumptions under which they have been living.  Dictators were tolerated when the economy flourished and employment was high; only once the dream was over did people realise the trade-off (economic success at the expense of democracy) was a false economy.  The elites were rich and in power, the general population had no power, no jobs and no security.
The volte-face of both Arab and Western governments from opposing the uprisings to at the very least accepting their legitimacy, demonstrates the survival instincts of governments and their elites.  Hosni Al Mubarak hoped to placate his population with reform, but that was not enough.  Once it became untenable to support Mubarak’s despotic regime, the US quickly moved to oppose it.
Europe is not in the same situation as the Maghreb region by some distance, let alone the post-war Europe of 1945.  But social unrest and a will for change are likely to grow if the economy collapses once more.  The people of Greece, Spain and Italy are already questioning the assumptions upon which their societies are constructed.  Unfettered financial capitalism, does not after all, trickle down its benefits to the wider population but instead trickles its problems down to the bottom in the form of taxpayer bailouts and austerity measures. 
This actually presents an opportunity for serious and meaningful reform, which has yet to take place in the aftermath of the crisis.  European leaders will do everything possible to stave off a social crisis, including closing the barn door after the horse has bolted and implementing serious regulation.  Unfortunately the opportunity to seriously reform our economies and the financial sector will only be achieved if and when we reach the bleakest possible point.
The lesson is that governments and elites are, and always have been, prepared to act decisively when under threat.  It’s unlikely that major financial institutions will ever call for strenuous regulation, but they may accept it if the alternative is a call for mass nationalisation by populations on the streets with nothing to lose.  It will be a case of seeing who blinks first. 
But it is also important to note that social revolution can take place without mobs taking to the streets. Social media and the internet, with their ability to circumvent traditional hierarchies have undoubtedly played a crucial role in changing our major institutions.  Five years ago financial institutions were unquestioned sources of our economic growth, MPs claimed ludicrous expenses as if it were a right, a vote on AV was a mere fantasy of electoral reformers, News International was an unstoppable media juggernaut, North Africa was dominated by decades old dictators and Wikileaks was completely unknown.
Social upheaval and or revolution is not just the preserve of the Left, many right wing governments have come to power to enact austerity measures across the globe.  The de facto privatisation of the NHS seemed unthinkable even a year ago, the threat has yet to recede.  Whether prompted by Left or Right, the major institutions of the UK (welfare state, Parliament, press) have all been subject to serious challenge since 2008.
For now we must wait and see if Eurozone leaders can finally muster the will to take decisive action and prevent a second financial crisis in less than five years.  Depending on the solution adopted, the crisis may not be averted and we may see many more citizens taking to their streets to demand reform, fairness and justice.  The deeper the crisis, the louder the cries; only time will tell if the crisis sinks deep enough for our governments to listen.